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Musings on a Darkened Day

For several months now, I have lived my life in daylight (fortunate to have one of those day jobs that can sometimes be done from home), and I have hardly used my headlights at all, except as a safety precaution in early morning or late afternoon. But I have never once needed them to SEE.

So today, as I left work at the same time as always, but this time in the dead of night (by all appearances), my headlights hardly seemed enough. No gradual transition, this Daylight Saving Time conversion! No, this is throwing a switch that kills the circuit and turns off all the lights at once. The difference in one hour around noon can seem almost like nothing. One hour at night can seem almost eternal. But one hour around dusk? Day literally becomes night.

Swiftly I recalled one of the first lessons my mother taught me when she was showing me how to drive: if someone is driving toward you with lights so bright that you can barely see anything in front of you… focus on the line to your right. If you focus on that outer line, just for those last few seconds, it is easier to maintain your place in the lane and control your speed and your steering. Plus it helps to keep your night vision intact.

I was surprised at how easily that old lesson came back after months of disuse, though of course I’ve been practicing it as needed for decades now. Much how catching a baseball (for those coordinated enough to do so) involves complex physics and mathematical trajectories that we anticipate without having to calculate the actual numbers, this skill was suddenly at the forefront of my mind without any words. My eyes glanced slightly away from the onrushing vehicle and its blinding glare, and I focused on that dim little white line, softly illuminated by my own headlights.

Worked like a charm, of course! I found myself maintaining a perfectly still position in the lane; I continued slowly forward, until the other driver had passed; and suddenly, my own headlights mattered again, and I could once more see a little bit of the road in front of me.

How reassuring to have these rarely-needed skills rise back up so easily when the time is right.

My mother was an excellent defensive driver. She could make good time on long road trips, but she also taught me early on that you can only control what YOU do on the road, never what someone else does. So if you want to be safe, act as though everyone else is paying less attention than you are and might miss things like turn signals, red lights, stop signs, oncoming cars, drivers in a blind spot, debris in the road. And you leave a little extra room, and a little extra time to respond, if that happens.

Driver in front of you didn’t see that board in the road? Might be nothing. Might have nails in it. Might flip up as they drive over it and thump their car, or come at yours. If you see it before the other driver, though, you can slow down, space out the cars a little more, and be prepared to respond safely.

I have driven a great deal in my years so far, and I have long ago lost track of the number of times that her advice saved me trouble, saved me from damage, and may even have saved my life.

Years ago, The Moffatts wrote a charming, age-appropriate song called, “Mama Never Told Me ‘Bout You”, where the lead singer recites many good lessons that his mother had taught him, but he was still blindsided by falling for this cute girl. Well, mothers may not automatically know everything, of course, but the wisest ones continue to learn as they go and impart their distilled wisdom into their children’s minds and hearts whenever they can, to set the best examples they can possibly do, and – ideally – to raise thoughtful, attentive, curious, compassionate, and kind-hearted children who grow up to be the same kind of adults.

My mother made mistakes – everyone does – but she got a lot of things right, too. In tricky situations, with a lot of variables in play, like driving and so many other things, one wrong decision in one instant can mean the difference between life and death, or any stop in between.

Strong wisdom and good teachings provide no guarantee that anything will go right in one’s life, but it seems like they lean the odds just a little bit in your favor, and I am grateful to have them on my side. Might have made all the difference a few hours ago. I’m glad we’ll never know, but I’m glad to be able to tell you about it now.

You Deserve Better

Six months ago, and a year ago, things may have seemed simpler for a lot of us, for so many reasons. Today I considered a crucial one that we often overlook.

I have heard a number of friends lately struggle with this concept, as have I. Anyone who is trying to build a brand, or write a blog, or start a podcast, or anything that you are trying to do… you want people to listen. You want people to hear you. And on the surface – in the beginning – ANY reader, viewer, or follower seems important. And everyone IS important.

But.

If you walk one of these paths – indeed, if you strive to achieve any goal at all – you will find trolls. You will find people who want to tear you down. You will find people who always have something to say about what you said, or did, or wrote, or made. But it’s never uplifting; it’s never constructive; it’s never encouraging. It’s never even questioning. Some of these people just always want to tear you down.

I’m all about questioning. I love to have people challenge my ideas (most of the time, anyway). But challenge them with your own thoughts and your own ideas, not just some twisted dogma or vitriol, because you had a hard day, or a hard year, or even a hard life! I feel for you, if you have. Everyone has gone through struggles, but that’s one of the things that connects us.

Many of you will have heard this before, or one of its variations:

“Always be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you do not know.”

Struggles, challenges, courage, hope, overcoming, even grief! These are things that can bond us together. These are things that can help us find common ground, understanding, compassion, for each other. I don’t worry much when someone has a bad day and says one rude thing. (I’ve certainly done this! And no one is too big to apologize.)

Anyone can have a bad day, and anyone can say one hurtful thing. Accidentally, or even on purpose, by lashing out because of some emotional damage they didn’t realize was being externalized in the moment. And if that person realizes what happened and apologizes, the odds are very strong that I will forgive them and we will move on, as adults.

But some people just want to trash talk, and I don’t have time for those people anymore.

I have a tiny blog, with perhaps a handful of readers. But I already don’t have time for people who just want to hate. I have had to part company with some old friends, because while we once had spirited discussions, debates, and even disagreements, they become bitter over something. Anything! Often politics. Sometimes personal losses that weighed so heavily on them that, instead of leaning on their friends for support, they simply became sour, toward everything.

One of them, I had to separate from months ago. I saw him struggling, read what little he shared online, and reached out to him and asked him what I could do. I made sure to take it offline, so there would be no audience, and we could just be two adults who respected each other, having a discussion about our lives. He dismissed me; brushed away my offers, which is fine; that’s his right. But he continued to be extremely caustic in public, and whether that’s his brand, and he wants an audience, or whether he’s just become so filled with frustration that he hates everything most days… I don’t have time for that now.

That’s just one example. If you’re reading this now, you may have encountered what we call The Internet (!), and you can likely think of many more!

If you’re an artist, an engineer, a builder, a designer of any kind, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about.

You need to know this: shutting out destructive people, toxic people, bitter people, who have no room left for joy, encouragement, hope? Sometimes that is the only option you have, for your own survival.

If you have a strong foundation, if you’re in a good place, with lots of resources – time, energy, even money – and you want to help a lot of people… do so! I encourage that, too. If you want to start an organization that can reach people who are struggling in a community, in a sector, in a country… by all means, go for it! That can be a wonderful cause!

Even if you have limited resources, but you’re still in a position to help someone else, and you want to, that’s terrific. But if you’re in a troubled place right now, maybe you should start with yourself. Maybe you should get yourself on steady footing before you try to throw a line to others.

Of course I don’t mean to be rude, or heartless; not ever! Sometimes we find new strength and energy in the very act of helping other people. And that can make us stronger, help bring us more focus, and more confidence. Even fulfillment.

All these aspects of human emotion and psychology and character are real. But if you’re struggling, whatever your work hustle is, or even if you’re just trying to survive this moment, don’t give anyone who wants to hurt you the time of day. Don’t give anyone who has nothing useful to say to you, a minute of your time, or one spark of your energy.

I’ve long said that you can only truly love another person once you love yourself. You can’t appreciate respect from another person until you respect yourself. Plenty of people struggle with these aspects, too. In fact, I wrote another entire blog about my own journey from self-loathing to self-respect, and it has literally turned my life around.

You must help yourself first. If you don’t put some of your energy into yourself first, you will very quickly feel spent dealing with other people, even people you love, even people you’re trying to help. Thankless work may be fine for saints, but most of us walk a line somewhere in the middle! Most of us want to feel appreciated, at least from time to time. Most of us want to know that we’re doing the right thing, as often as possible.

If you know your path well, you have an excellent start. But if you can filter out some of these people who have nothing to add to your life, and who only take things away, then the struggles won’t be as hard. And your successes just might feel every bit as sweet as you deserve.

Regular pruning helps trees and other plants to thrive, because life is about growth, and growth is messy. How many people do you know whose life has followed exactly the course that they charted for it? At best, I know people who have accomplished one or two major goals that they set when they were younger. But most of us are finding our way every day, and it’s okay to change that course.

If you’ve found your North Star, and you can follow it firmly, so much the better. If you’re still looking for it, that’s fine, too! Some people know what they want in life at age 20; some people are still seeking it at age 50.

Grandma Moses always loved art and preferred embroidery until her late 70s, when her arthritis made that craft too difficult. She took up painting again, and we all know that turned out well. But she found joy in it, and sold paintings for just a few dollars at first, and later for thousands of dollars. Quite the success story, though she started off doing something else.

So there’s plenty of hope for all of us.

Prune your life of people, places, and things that hold nothing but ill will or bad memories for you. If you need to give away something from an old relationship so that you can let it go and finally move on with your life, give it away. And if it was a bad relationship, break it. Burn it. Consecrate it and bury it in the ground. Whatever you need to do.

If there’s a place you can no longer stand to be, consider a move. I know that’s a huge step! I don’t pretend that’s easy or simple. But it is possible. It’s possible, and it can give you the fresh start you need. It can give you a fresh outlook, new energy, and a clean slate.

And if it’s people that are holding you back, or holding you down, or always trying to discourage everything you do, you can change that, too. If you’re brave and they’re reasonable, bring it up. Frankly, honestly, simply. Plan a time, plan a place, make it over a meal, make it in a public place, make it at home – wherever it needs to be – and talk. Tell them what’s bothering you. And if that’s not possible, you can simply break off contact, with or without an explanation. Whatever is appropriate for you.

You deserve to have people around you who support you, who lift you up. My best friend says that you become like the five people that you spend the most time around and invest the most time in. And so he makes sure that those five people are good for him. He feels that I enrich his life and that he can learn from me, and that I help him strive for better things. And I feel exactly the same way about him.

Maybe it’s time you start choosing the top five people in your life. And if you have a close family of twenty or more people, maybe some of your top five will be in that family. Maybe they all will. Maybe none of them will. That’s okay! I’m not telling you to abandon your family if they’re not in your top five. I’m just saying, find the people who lift you up, and make sure to invest your time and energy in those relationships.

It doesn’t have to be five. It can be three, or ten, or whatever you have the time and energy for. Extroverts will have more energy to deal with more people. Introverts may only be able to handle two or three people.

You CAN do this.

You deserve strong, supportive relationships in your life.

Carve out some time to start thinking about this. It could be in your commute. It could be while you’re washing dishes, or sewing, or working out, or cleaning your house or apartment, or sunbathing, or on the beach, or at the library, or hiking through trees, or in any place where you can hear your own thoughts. Write these things out if you need to, and be honest. No one else ever has to see it. But you’ll appreciate figuring this out, and you may have more energy than you ever dreamed possible once you do.

You can do this. Find a safe space and start now. You can thank yourself in six months.

We all need some little victories

Five months of quarantine, working at home or not working at all, and we have had good and bad days. But then wildfires grew from seasonal to terrible, and we’ve been stuck inside all day and night due to the pervasive smoke in the tiny backyard that was once our safety valve to the cabin fever that I know is challenging so many people these days.

Don’t get me wrong for a second: I know how lucky we are to HAVE a safe home at all, especially during wildfire season and this pandemic. It’s just that we had adapted fairly well to the temporary strictures of limited grocery shopping, extra cleaning and caution, and suspending literally everything else we wanted to do lately. We KNOW we’re lucky.

But when even the tiny bit of equilibrium we had maintained was spun off kilter, things started to break down again.

Last night, I realized that maybe what we need are some little victories. Even tiny little benchmarks can give you a sense of accomplishment, and when everything seems to be in stasis — when it seems like we are constantly holding our breath, all day, every day — having something to look toward and work toward, however small, might be the next rope we can cling to, to pull ourselves back toward solid footing again.

Months ago, I made a list of things I wanted to do each day, each week, and each month. The daily items were small: a few minutes of stretches in the morning, 4000 steps on my cheap pedometer (a relative measure, but one that made me feel sufficiently active), a free Duolingo lesson each day, and a personal goal to clear out my email newsletters whether I read them or not, so that I didn’t have even that miniscule burden piling up on me. The daily goals were fair, but even those slipped at times. My weekly and monthly targets didn’t even come close.

Fast-forward to the present, and we will have to see what tiny things we can do now, even all indoors if that’s what it takes. I don’t care how simple they are: anything we can work on and potentially check off a list, even a list of only one or two things at first, can be the difference between focus and floundering. And focusing on something that is possible, can make the difference between overwhelm and holding it all together.

Holding it all together for a few hours gives you hope. Doing so for a few days gives you momentum. And keeping up that momentum for a few weeks means you have formed a new habit, and THAT can bring you new equilibrium.

As people talk about “finding a new normal” in pandemic times, I prefer to talk about a new equilibrium. Things will never go “back to normal”, and with all of the challenges facing us as a country and a world today, that can only be a good thing. We don’t need to go BACK to how things were; we need to find a way to deal with life NOW, for today and tomorrow.

When we focus on the moment, things don’t always feel so overwhelming. Once we can manage today, we may find that we can spare some energy for new ideas, for tomorrow, and for our fellow humans everywhere. And that is a balance that we can use to help ourselves and each other, to make things a little better each day.

Big steps come after. Today, put a little victory or two in sight, and start with that.

Briefly: Code-Switching and Education

Humans are not generally wired to appreciate change; in many, novelty often seems to activate the same parts of the brain that generate fear, a largely obsolete reaction to unexpected encounters in prehistory that might have meant a new predator or a dangerous development was at hand. This fact makes it even more important to expose young people (especially) to as many new ideas and situations as possible, preferably at the side of a guiding adult who understands both science and social nuances. With some exposure and a broad education, such children can grow up to be confident citizens of the world, open-minded enough to handle change with care and kindness, and wise enough to learn from their ongoing experiences and become even better at dealing with various people and groups they meet, and even with paradigm shifts that they will undoubtedly witness in their lifetimes. (These thoughts came after reading a short piece in today’s NYTimes morning briefing; follow the link and search the page for “Code-switching” if you’d like to read a little more on the subject.)

Briefly: MUJI

Today I discovered MUJI, short for Mujirushi Ryohin, a Japanese company that specializes in “no-brand quality goods” and environmental responsibility. Unexpectedly delightful, they have spread across the globe since 1980 and bring fascinating products and some real excellence to boot. See their pens, their octagonal chopsticks, and their household goods (and more) right here, at https://www.muji.com/us/ – if you prefer another language, just visit https://www.muji.com/ and select your nation of choice there. Check it out today!

Playing not to lose

The best possible case for “playing” life as a defensive game is holding your position. But you can only advance if you take action.

Life is not a game, of course, but any metaphor that helps you gain insight on how to approach it with more joy, more courage, and more success, can be worthwhile. I have always loved chess, and this can be fine lens for reflection at times.

For many years, I have seen people who play not to lose, without development, without any substantial action to better their positions. As with any form of life that does not grow up and outward, the world will encroach on such a quiet existence, and one can even lose important pieces unexpectedly. Some people will be slow and cautious before such a loss, like the chess King, and can even lose the most powerful people they have ever known. Many chess players feel lost without their Queen, and it is easy to understand how this feels if you have ever seen it first-hand in real life. But playing not to lose is no way to succeed at anything. As someone wiser than me once said, you have to risk losing; sometimes you have to risk everything.

To play an offensive game in chess, indeed to accomplish anything of note, you must attack. But first, you must observe everything, plan carefully, coordinate with everyone around you, and move swiftly and attentively. An offensive game in life is very similar, though attack is not required; you need only take action to move forward. Even lateral moves and temporary retreats have their place in chess and in life. And whether you live life as the king, carefully bearing a heavy responsibility for everyone around you, or the queen, moving swiftly and decisively, inspiring awe among those in your path, you still must keep track of the larger picture to have any chance at your ultimate goals. In chess, there is only one. In life, there are many: joy, health, love, friendship, knowledge, wisdom, service to others, self-respect, self-awareness, peace of mind, and so much more. Some of them may come easily, and some of them may take a lifetime of hard work, but all of them are only within reach if you mind the big picture while you take each step along the way.

So live your life on purpose, and remember to play sometimes, whatever your games of choice. But always pay attention, plan ahead, improvise when you must, and be bold enough to keep moving toward what you want.

It’s your move.

Order and Chaos (part 1)

I think it takes a very different spirit to appreciate the fleeting nature of life, versus that with which so many of us may have been raised.

Navigating to a new store today, in an area with which I was unfamiliar, I spotted a sign that said, “Yummy Bowl: Mongolian stir-fry and sushi, coming soon”. I was reminded of the restaurant Genghis Grill, which was wonderful on my first visit, good on my second visit, and closed on my third attempt. That restaurant closed forever before I got to try it a third time. While disappointed then, I look back today and am grateful that I got to discover it at all.

Which leads me to my Zen wisdom of today. That experiences are what make us richer, and I can always use a reminder to be grateful for what I have, and what I have had, more than I should ever continue mourning anything that I have lost.

Recognizing and overcoming guilt and shame

I have heard a lot in my life about guilt and about shame. These two negative emotions have very different impacts on life and on behavior, and I want to share some of what I have learned, through study, self-reflection, careful thought, and the love of those closest to me. This is how I learned to identify them and put them behind me, and I hope it helps you to do the same, so you can take back your life and live it more fully.

Most simply, guilt is something you feel that makes you regret a previous behavior and want to make amends, and to do better next time, too. Shame is an ouroboros, feeding on itself, going nowhere, accomplishing nothing useful, and providing no help. It is not even fuel to be burned, like anger (properly managed) can be.

Shame ruins everything you allow it to touch; there is no upside to it. It causes self-destructive behavior built on denial and pain. Shame has no opposite to balance it out; the only thing I have found that can counter it at all is a combination of honesty and love. Honesty with yourself, harsh honesty if needed, to see what you really did that makes you feel this way. You may be surprised that it doesn’t hold up as you thought it did. This makes it easier to move on.

Of course, sometimes it truly is as bad as you feared, but when you admit that to yourself first, you take away most of its power at once. Denial is a heavy blanket that weighs you down everywhere you go; it keeps you from breathing properly, from acting effectively, and from seeing what is really around you, even right in front of your face. Allow yourself to stare that pain down and feel it for a moment, then allow yourself to step away without breaking eye contact.

Shame cannot survive being spoken. Fears, too, often lose their power when you can put a name to them and call them out.

Face up to your deepest fears, your worst shame, and you lift the blanket of denial. Like coming up for air, you will immediately feel lighter, even if the shock of that air and that brightness may overwhelm you at first. To carry this metaphor to fruition, this also lets you move freely again. It can feel very different, suddenly having the ability to reach out and say or do something that felt unattainable before. But when you do this, you immediately take back some of the power to help yourself and to change what you’ve brought to be.

After honesty comes love.

Part of shame’s power to imprison your mind and heart is that it wields fear like a physical weapon. Fear hurts, and you can shy away from its touch, even for years. Many have this ingrained in them. But I have only found two things that can beat back fear. One is courage: not the absence of fear, but the determination to act from knowing that something else is more important. Sometimes clear thinking can help you reach this point, when you realize something new, or when someone else helps open your eyes to a truth you had overlooked.

But even more powerful and more sweeping is love. Love can wash fear away like the surf of a rising tide. This does not always happen automatically. Sometimes you have to burn away the denial with that lens of honesty before you can find the love beneath it, for denial can hide even that, when you give it enough power over enough time. But love unveiled can be your strongest defense and your greatest tool.

Love for another can make you choose to risk your life, or to give up something valuable, if you can help them. It can help you to overcome your lifelong shyness or your fear of embarrassment to step up and say a kind word to someone in need, or to someone in pain. This can be the protective love of a parent for a child, or a friend for another, or the selfless love of anyone for a stranger. It is all the same power, and it can inspire awe and help you to master any fear you have, as long as you can feel it openly.

Honesty can help you to see someone you love who is hurting, and to recognize that your love can help that person. This person can be someone with whom you are close, or someone distant to whom you want to reach out, or a total stranger you encounter seemingly by chance. It can even be yourself. Be honest, first, and then allow yourself to love someone – someone else, or your own being. No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.

If you have lived with shame, you are almost certainly telling yourself lies. Maybe someone else put them there in the beginning, and whether you hear their voice in your head and your heart, or whether you hear your own, shame does nothing but erode everything you are that matters. It saps your energy, it keeps you cold and still and quiet, and it robs you of your very life, one inch and one drop at a time. It serves nothing but pain and fear.

Guilt over actions means you see that you can do better. THAT is a fueling emotion that you can use to reach out and help someone. Even yourself! If you committed some offense that no one has even discovered yet, but you feel guilty about it, you can make yourself feel better if you take action to make it right, and right now. If you wronged another, honesty and love are still your best tools to set things right again. Speak the truth with humility and show that person some love. No, it may not always be possible to make things truly right, but you only have a chance to do better if you take action.

Don’t wait. Do it now. Look inside, talk with someone you trust, or talk with yourself in the mirror. But be honest. Then be kind. Even if you think you don’t know kindness, then you already know everything else that hurts. Say something that you’ve never heard anyone say. See how it makes you feel. If it surprises you and lifts your heart, start with that. You may have just discovered kindness on your own. And when you share that with the world, honestly, you will quickly find that kindness attracts more kindness, and you will learn even faster how it feels, and how to cultivate it everywhere you can. Then you’re making yourself and your world a better place.

Every day.